Health & Fitness

Two women defied feminine convention and opted against breast reconstruction surgery

And neither of them ever felt less of a woman
 

Photo: 123rf

When 49-year-old prison co-facilitator and admin manager Felicia Yeo-Chua was diagnosed four years ago with cancer in her left breast, her doctor gave her the option of a lumpectomy. But she wasn’t taking any chances. “I didn’t want to be burdened later on in life with the possibility of more lumps appearing,” she says.

So, she made the decision to remove the breast. Her mother backed the decision, and friends weighed in - some supportive, others incredulous about what seemed an unnecessary course of action. At the time, Felicia was a newly-wed, and fretted that her husband would see her as no longer “whole”. As it turned out, she need not have worried. “He reassured me many times, even until now, that he loves me for who I am, and not how I look.” That, in part, helped her reach the decision not to undergo reconstruction. As she was also keen to move on with her life, a breast reconstruction didn’t square with that purpose.

 

“My Life Isn’t Less Full Without My Breasts.”

Photography: Veronica Tay, Hair and Makeup: Christian Maronion, using Inga by 27A

“I thought I would feel bad about my body post-surgery, but I didn’t,” says Felicia, adding that she focused on getting her health back, so she could have more time with her family. She admits, though, that age probably had a hand in it, and that she might have been more deeply affected had this happened to her when she was younger. Today, the scars on her chest are a reminder of the battle she fought to survive.

In fact, Felicia and her husband resumed sexual intimacy two months after her surgery. It wasn’t easy, and she recalls having to talk to her husband about her fears so he could give her the reassurance she needed. Tears well up as she recounts how considerate he was, and how he told her that he loved her. “His line has always been, ‘You’re even more special now than before’.”

“Breasts are just surface beauty. They’re not vital organs,” says 50-year-old homemaker Jocelyn Gwee. Unlike Felicia, it’s taken Jocelyn longer to make peace with her decision. When Jocelyn was first diagnosed in 2016 and told she would require a mastectomy of her left breast, she couldn’t handle the thought, and even got a second opinion. When the diagnosis and treatment plan were confirmed, she knew she would have to face up to it. A double whammy followed when she found out there was a high risk of the cancer spreading to her right breast, and it was recommended that she remove that one as well.

After the operation, her doctor suggested an immediate breast reconstruction, and Jocelyn - who loved going to the beach in pretty bikinis - was quick to agree. But a week before the operation, she cancelled. “I was concerned another surgery would be too much for me to handle,” she said. She was determined to make peace with her decision and live life as well as she could.

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“I learnt to take things in my stride.”

Photography: Veronica Tay, Hair and Makeup: Christian Maronion, using Inga by 27A

Even though Jocelyn now has two 12cm-long scars across her chest, she doesn’t let that stop her from swimming, chilling at the beach, or staying active. She’s simply made adjustments - swopping a bikini top for a tube top, not wearing low-cut or strappy tops which might expose her scars, and buying surgical bras that allow her to insert padding so she can have a more traditionally “feminine” silhouette whenever it suited her.

Similarly, Felicia - who has a horizontal scar stretching from her left chest to just below her armpit - has ditched her spaghetti-strap tops, because they accentuate her missing breast. But she still enjoys fitted clothing.

For Felicia and Jocelyn, life after their mastectomies means new perspectives. “You’ve got to accept yourself, and the support that others - whether it’s family or friends - give you,” says Felicia.

Jocelyn is enjoying life to the fullest. “You have to stay strong and positive, because it’s all about the way you think that helps you overcome obstacles and fears.”

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The low-down on breast reconstruction

Tried-and-tested breast reconstruction techniques involve artificial implants or a tissue flap from another part of the body - usually the back or tummy area. “When relocating tissues, a patient can associate something positive with the negative,” says Gleneagles Hospital’s Dr Esther Chuwa. Think of it as a tummy tuck. But you might want to skip this method if you’re particularly athletic, as mobility restrictions may later surface. For instance, the tummy wall could weaken, or you may experience back pain when skiing or rock climbing.

Newer techniques are geared towards improving these two methods. “‘Gummy bear’ or silicone implants appear softer, more natural, and don’t leak if they rupture,” explains Dr Chuwa. Another improved technique is the soft tissue matrix graft - which uses a surgical scaffold (made from human or animal skin) to cover up a permanent implant. “The graft attracts your own cells to populate the scaffolding. For implant-related options, we’re always trying to incorporate a more natural method, short of taking another part of your body to cover up the implant,” adds Dr Chuwa.

A good option for lean individuals with little back or tummy fat is fat grafting - fat can be harvested widely from other parts of the body by liposuction. A thin layer of fat can be harvested from the thighs or buttocks to be purified and injected into the chest area to rebuild the breast.

Dr Chuwa, however, emphasises that a double mastectomy does not replace treatment. And on its own, it cannot prevent the spread of cancer to other parts of the body. So consult a professional before making any decisions.

This story was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Her World magazine.

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